Many overseas visitors often mistake Sydney for Australia’s capital. It is the oldest and biggest city, and in the opinion of many it is the most exciting and international of the state capitals dotted around the periphery of the island continent. It certainly has more famous landmarks than other Australian cities (the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are recognised throughout the world). It has a good balance of economics and business, arts and culture, leisure and hedonism, and in the words of the ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating, ‘If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out’.
But it can be a difficult place for an outsider to love. It doesn’t have the intimacy of scale of Hobart and Adelaide, the laid-back out-door attitude of Perth and Brisbane, or the cosmopolitan style of Melbourne. It is clean but fast, uncompromising, and seemingly fixated on fame. For playwright David Williamson it is the ‘Emerald City’; for painter John Olsen it is the ‘Siren City of the Rat Race’ (a painting title from 1963) and ‘… my beloved bitch goddess …’ (Drawn From Life, 1997, p 152)
It is the harbour that makes the city truly memorable. Bill Bryson says the shoreline is 152 miles (245 kilometres) long and that, ‘… one moment you are walking beside a tiny sheltered cove that seems miles from anywhere, and the next you round a headland to find before you an open expanse of water with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge and clustered skyscrapers gleaming in airy sunshine and holding centre stage. It is endlessly and unbelievably beguiling.’ (Down Under, 2000 p 85)
Even Paul Theroux, amongst what is the otherwise bitter and misinformed invective that forms much of his opinion of Australia in ‘The Happy Isles of Oceania’, finds himself admitting—one feels reluctantly—that Sydney Harbour ‘… was the most beautiful harbor I had ever seen in my life, long and wide, spangled with sunshine and filled with coves and bays …’ (1992 p 46)
Most people who visit love it—at least for a while.